Sunday, February 17, 2019

Forgotten children

A few years a back, in what was then a new church job, I thought I'd printed out a copy of my own fugue on the hymn tune "Duke Street," a sturdy old tune I've always loved since I first heard it in Chariots of Fire. I've played this fugue many times (including quite badly this morning!) - you can hear a pedestrian performance of it by a non-virtual fake organist here - and was intending to play it that morning. But I was surprised to realize what I'd printed (simply file-named as "mm_dukestreet") was a Prelude on "Duke Street" I'd had NO memory of writing. I can't remember how I problem-solved my way out of having the wrong music that morning, because this prelude for piano is COMPLETELY different from the organ fugue in just about every way except the "subject" matter.

With "Duke Street" as our opening hymn tune today, I decided to bring back both prelude and fugue for prelude and postlude this morning, and I had the idea as I was practicing early this morning that I should record the prelude. Now what's really weird, and what I've only realized after starting this post, is that I'd forgotten I'd already written about this forgotten prelude on Facebook back in 2016, complete with a video recording that mostly just shows my right arm moving inside the white cotta I wear on Sundays.

I discovered this recording because a sense of déjà vu had come over me while listening to the recording I made this morning. I went searching back in my phone video records for past Sundays on which I've played this forgotten prelude, and found yet another Sunday when I'd recorded it as well! So I keep remembering, recording, and then forgetting this prelude until....well, maybe this is just an early document in an oncoming dementia, but I now have three recordings of this quirky prelude, all on the church's quirky little Baldwin console piano. Here's the one I made today, with the phone placed further away.

The music definitely shows some influence of Ives and Messiaen, and it's generally about as out there as my church repertoire gets. It's a progressively polytonal structure in which the tune each verse adds a new canonic voice a whole step higher, so by the end, the tune is at canon with itself in C, D, and E, though that gets obscured here and there by some murky writing. I need to go in and re-work it, but I obviously like it enough to keep trying to get it on record.

Oh, and I realized in doing more research today, that I seem to have written this prelude in May of 1999, which was one month before my first real child came into the world - so that might provide a good excuse for having forgotten this child even existed.

Sunday, February 10, 2019


I've written before about my tortured relationship with Papa Haydn. I like this and that of his, and he was certainly talented and clever and highly influential and apparently counts the symphony and the string quartet among his children, so...good job by him. I just don't love his music the way some do - or as much as I love what he inspired in the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. Maybe it was from being told as a young person that Haydn was so funny and clever because he put a really big loud chord in the middle of an otherwise quiet and boring tune.

I really shouldn't hold this against him because he could hardly have imagined how overplayed this "joke" became. So, I've had the idea* for some time that it could use an updating, to keep the surprises fresh. I've tried to mix things up a little bit, though for now there are only about 20 possible outcomes,** including Haydn's original version. Step over here and give it a try! You'll see that Haydn is dutifully covering up the surprise in the score. (There's also a small surprise hidin' in the title.)

I'm probably as guilty as anyone (even before having put this together) of reducing this whole symphony to one silly moment. To be honest, even just the second movement alone is better than I'd remembered, and I particularly enjoyed stumbling on this delightful Alkan transcription for piano solo just now. I will also say that working on this project has actually made me enjoy this music even more - perhaps in part because I feel invested in it now, but also because I've appreciated how well Haydn's banal theme sets up the surprise. When his original version pops up to surprise me, it still works!

Of course, I have a longstanding interest in randonmess (see here and here and here) and in the kind of culturally embedded meanings that can make a surprise feel surprising even when we know it's coming. The whole idea of "classical music" has a lot to do with the idea that certain works are worth hearing over and over because they continue to sound fresh and engaging - if not always surprising. But in general, I think classical music culture needs a lot more genuine surprises....though I think we've got plenty of Haydn, thank you.

UPDATE: Although I love the idea that people would try this over and over, eventually landing on all 25 (as of now) surprises, the truth is that would likely take well more than 50 tries since each re-load is totally random. So, you may go to this little audio player and sample all 25 options in sequence. HINT: #1 is Haydn's original.


* I didn't want to lead with this, but the thing that brought this back to my mind was an amusing choir rehearsal misunderstanding, when the singers misheard "terraced dynamics" as "terrorist dynamics." This, of course, is a very natural and surely common mishearing, but it was new to me. In trying to think what "terrorist dynamics" might sound like (but not wanting to get too silly with actual, grim explosions), I tossed this together, and that got my mind spinning on this bit of Haydn.

** Part of me would definitely love to have 50 or more brilliant outcomes, but there are a few I like a lot, and I fear they'd never get heard if I had too many. Some of the current options are far from perfect, but who says every surprise should be a good or pleasant one?

Monday, February 4, 2019

Posting with frequency...

It's been quiet here on the blog since the summer of fugues, but as infrequently as I've been posting, I'm back for the first time in 2019 with a post about frequencies. This will not be a long post, but perhaps it will kickstart something.

One reason I haven't posted as much lately is because of a new job that involves a lot of time talking to middle school boys about music. It's satisfying work, but can leave me mentally drained, and I'm still coming to terms with how to meet certain challenges. (As it happens, this blog began when I was tasked with teaching a broad-based, freshman arts lecture course and confronting all sorts of questions about why I love what I love; this new work may well inspire more of the same - or destroy my soul.)

So it is that, having spent some time teaching these students how pitch, frequencies, octaves, consonance, and dissonance (and singing and musical meaning!) interrelate, I realized it would be nice to have a tool that quickly shows and demonstrates pitch/frequency relationships, both visually and aurally. I spent yesterday' Super Bowl pre-game time putting something together - still a work-in-progress, but it does the job.

It helped a lot that someone had already created a nice little virtual keyboard on Scratch*, so all I had to do was add some interactive features to display pitch/frequency information for each key played and to show the ratio of any two pitches, which can then be heard played together. For my students, the main point is to reinforce how octave relationships are based on 2:1 ratios, but it's also just a fun quick way to interact with pitches, and our class Smartboard makes it easy to have students come try this out on the big screen.Do they care yet about our ear's ability to distinguish between a 2:1 ratio and a 1.78:1 ratio? Stay tuned!

You can try this project out here or by clicking on the image below:


* I went through a big Scratch phase a few years back. Here are links to some of my more successful experiments: